Born in Ozark, Arkansas, on September 23, 1939, Roy Buchanan was first raised there before moving to the farming community of Pixley, California. He was raised as the son of a farmer who also preached the gospel as a Pentecostal minister. For Buchanan, his musical memories began when he attended mixed racial revival meetings with his mother. The interest was enough that influenced him to pick up and learn the guitar. At fifteen years old, he began his career as a musician while performing in Johnny Otis’s rhythm and blues revue.
When Buchanan was nineteen years old, he made his recording debut with Dale Hawkins. It was Buchanan who played the solo for the single, “My Babe.” Two years later, Buchanan began to play for Dale Hawkins’s cousin while in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Ronnie Hawkins. While touring with him, Buchanan taught Robbie Robertson how to play the guitar. The recording of Ronnie Hawkins’s “Who Do You Love?” had Buchanan featured as the bass player.
During the early 1960s, Buchanan played as a sideman with various different rock bands before opting to support his family as a trained barber. At first, he left the music industry only to record and release his first solo single, “Mule Train Stomp” while he was signed with Swan Records. In 1962, his recording with drummer Bobby Gregg led to the signature pinch harmonic sound that became a Roy Buchanan trademark. He used this to his advantage when the wave of British performers swept across the North American audience during the mid-1960s.
Buchanan vs. Hendrix
While living in Washington, D.C., Buchanan played for Danny Denver’s band for several years. He earned himself a reputation as one of the finest rock guitarists in the business. In 1967, photographer John Gossage observed Roy Buchanan was impressed by Jimi Hendrix’s debut album, Are You Experienced?, which gave him reason to hand a concert ticket to Buchanan so he could attend the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1968. For Buchanan, he was surprised to find Hendrix was using his own trademark sounds that he first used, including the Telecaster sound created by electronic pedals. Although Buchanan could never attempt Hendrix’s stage performance, he shifted his focus to further enhance his own guitar picking style.
In 1971, the name Roy Buchanan earned him national recognition after it aired Introducing Roy Buchanan as an hour-long documentary. This resulted in a record deal with Polydor Records, as well as a series of praise and invites. He became the man who turned the Rolling Stones when he declined their offer to join them. Speculation had it the reason why Buchanan turned the Stones down was the fear of experiencing the same fate as Brian Jones. In 1977, PBS aired the second season of its popular music program, Austin City Limits. Roy Buchanan made an appearance on it, cashing in on the fame the network gave him six years prior.
While with Polydor records, he recorded and released five albums. Among the recordings, Second Album became certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. While recording for Atlantic Records, 1977’s Loading Zone also became certified gold. Despite the success, Buchanan chose to quit recording in 1981 as he made it clear he didn’t want to enter a studio again unless he was allowed to record his own music his own way. In 1985, Alligator Records offered Buchanan the creative freedom to do exactly as he wished. In 1985, he released When a Guitar Plays the Blues. It was followed the next year with Dancing on the Edge. The final album recorded by Buchanan was Hot Wires, which was released in 1987.
August 7, 1988, marked the final show Roy Buchanan would perform. Exactly one week later, Buchanan’s body was hanging from his own shirt while in a Fairfax County, Virginia, jail cell. While the August 14, 1988 death was ruled a suicide, Buchanan’s family and friends pointed out there were bruises on the man’s head. They were not in agreement that Buchanan would simply end his own life. Despite the personal demons that plagued Roy Buchanan, he was a devout Christian who took the Holy Bible seriously. Not even the charge of a domestic dispute and public intoxication was enough to convince those closest to Buchanan to believe he’d prefer death over redemption.
Roy Buchanan Legacy
Although Roy Buchanan was not recognized as a big-name recording star, there is an agreement he was one of the most influential guitar players that ever graced the music industry. Throughout his career, he played a number of different guitars such as a 1953 Fender Telecaster he named “Nancy.” Aside from jumbo frets installed it remained as a serial number 2324 original. He also owned a 1952 Butterscotch Blonde Fender Telecaster that would later become the property of guitarist Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash fame.
Buchanan’s Telecaster guitar play was done through a Fender Vibrolux amplifier that had the tone and volume set to full out. He used these controls as part of his signature sound, including the wah-wah effect that Hendrix copied and performed at the start of his own recording career. Buchanan purposely distorted various sounds in order to achieve the desired effect. This included using a razor blade to slit the paper cones in his amp’s speakers. Buchanan’s technique was also used by other guitarists, including Dave Davies from the Kinks.
The chicken picking technique was another Roy Buchanan trademark, as was the use of his thumbnail instead of a plectrum. There were several guitar-playing techniques Buchanan employed and was famous for his oblique bends. At will, he could play harmonics and mute out individual strings while picking or pinching others. His playing style influenced scores of guitarists, including Jeff Beck who dedicated his 1974 version of “Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” to Buchanan.
Top 10 Roy Buchanan Songs
#10 – Thank You Lord
We open up our top 10 Roy Buchanan songs list with the magnificent song “Thank You Lord.” The song was released on Roy Buchanan’s second album titled appropriately Second Album. The album was released in 1973 on Polygram Records. The song features a simple arrangement of just Roy Buchanan playing acoustic guitar and singing lead vocals. However, the song begins to lean towards the electric side with some really fine electric guitar playing reminiscent of the spirit of George Harrison.
#9 – I Am a Lonesome Fugitive (featuring Chuck Tilley)
“I Am a Lonesome Fugitive” was a song originally written and performed by Merle Haggard in 1967. For Roy Buchanan, this was an inspirational number that inspired to create an impressive version of his own. While he performed his signature sounds on the guitar, vocalist Chuck Tilley soulfully sang along as the two turned this song into an amped-up version of a country classic. Featured on Roy Buchanan’s 1972 debut album, “I Am a Lonesome Fugitive” also marked a time in the genius guitarist’s life where he perhaps felt like one from time to time.
#8 – Further On Up the Road
1975’s Live Stock performance by Roy Buchanan was a gem for an audience that left an everlasting impression on those who were lucky to be there for the event. “Further On Up the Road” was a twist to a blues standard Buchanan performed a year after Eric Clapton and The Band performed the song together in the Band’s The Last Waltz film.
#7 – Please Don’t Turn Me Away
In 1974’s, This Is What I Am Here For, “Please Don’t Turn Me Away” was a bluesy number that had Roy Buchanan mimic Billy Price’s verse vocals during two solo spots, The genius behind the guitar was at his best as he poured enough heart and soul into the tune to make it an all-time, addictive classic. The eighth note piano riff at the start of the song sets up the vocal performance that echoes the style of Dion in many ways. Listen to that guitar solo at close to the two-minute mark. It’s worth the price of admission alone.
#6 – Haunted House
1972’s “Haunted House” came from Roy Buchanan’s debut album. What started out as a Bob Geddins original was cranked into a goofy rockabilly number that’s just too catchy to ignore. Not only was Buchanan able to bring forth serious songs with his talent with the guitar but some lighthearted material to simply tap your toes to and enjoy.
#5 – Five String Blues
What made 1973’s Second Album a certified gold seller was the collection of high-quality tunes like ‘Five String Blues.” The wailing opening was met with what sounded like violin distortion before it shred into some serious blues. Before the song is over, the laid-back lyrics kick in with a few phrases before Buchanan’s harmonic pinches take over the song again. As a musician, this was Buchanan at his best, knowing how to adjust the mood of a song as if on a whim.
#4 – Pete’s Blues
Released in 1972, Roy Buchanan was a debut album that featured Buchanan’s genius with the guitar. “Pete’s Blues” was a bluesy number that had the influence of the Middle East serve as a passionate squeal that contrasted beautifully against the slow backbeats. Allowing the harmonics of the instruments to dictate the musical storyline, Buchanan was a master of turning his guitar into the star of any melodic performance. Even if a song is sung by the most gifted vocalist if the musical instruments involved fail to deliver quality then it’s a waste of talent.
#3 – Roy’s Bluz
The 1975 Live Stock performance by Roy Buchanan turned “Roy’s Bluz” into one of the most entertaining guitar numbers ever produced. When performing before a live audience, Buchanan seemed to be unbeatable. He, along with his 1953 Telecaster named Nancy, made good use of the infamous wah-wah sounds and other signature sounds that turned Buchanan into a guitar hero. The majority of the best guitar talent learned their craft from the influence of Buchanan, whether it be directly or indirectly.
#2 – The Messiah Will Come Again
From the 1972 album, Roy Buchanan, “The Messiah Will Come Again” was a recording that became one of his most memorable tunes. After the monotone opening, the slow guitar play that followed was loaded with enough emotion that a listener would truly have to be heartless not to feel something. This song was written while Buchanan was contending with substance abuse and it perhaps served to be just as therapeutic for him to perform it as it was for a fan to hear it.
#1 – Sweet Dreams
2004’s Guitar Player featured a version of Roy Buchanan’s “Sweet Dreams,” citing it as one of the 50 Greatest Tones of All Time. This was a song that was released from Roy Buchanan’s self-titled debut album while he was signed with Polydor Records. The song was originally written and recorded by Don Gibson in 1955. However, it was the Faron Young version that got most of the attention. Since then, “Sweet Dreams” has become a country standard that has been an all-time favorite by recording artists and stage performers. Young’s version became a number two hit on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart compared to Gibson’s number nine rank.
In 1960, Gibson re-recorded and released “Sweet Dreams” which would turn it into a number six hit on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart as well as a number ninety-three hit on the US Billboard Hot 100. Buchanan’s 1972 version of “Sweet Dreams” served as one of the best definitions of a true guitar hero.
Using the guitar in place of where vocals would appear, it was Buchanan’s version that would be used as the closing number to the 2006 film, The Departed. Sometimes, the best country ballads are the ones that allow the talent behind the star instrument do all the storytelling while the listener just sits back and takes it all in.
Feature Photo: RoyBuchananPerforming.jpg: Carl Lender at https://www.flickr.com/photos/clender/derivative work: WikiAR, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons
Top 10 Roy Buchanan Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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